Beautiful Somewhere Else
Worth a gander this holiday season if for no other reason than this is one lovely book that didn't get nearly enough attention in 2004. The novel is funny, a farce in the original sense of the word: humanity at the mercy of the physical world. No matter how high your ambitions or hopes, it's the banana peel that gets you every time.
Eleanor Rigby: A Novel
From the very first paragraph, Eleanor Rigby delights. More than a dozen years after he blew the cultural doors off the youth of the west with his first book, Generation X, Douglas Coupland is still delivering tight and compelling stories that we can care about. The tone, the pacing and the phrasing will be familiar to Coupland fans. The subject matter is a whole new deal. Liz Dunn is The Beatles' Eleanor Rigby personified. She's plump, plain and she suspects life is passing her by, but she doesn't quite have the energy -- or the desire -- to do anything about it. While working hard to convalesce from oral surgery, a call from the police changes her life: a young man she's never met is in hospital with a medic alert bracelet on his wrist instructing anyone that finds him to contact Liz. Coupland weaves world issues and concerns brilliantly -- sometimes, it seems, effortlessly -- into a compelling story with an oddly happy ending. Be careful what you wish for.
I Am Charlotte Simmons
Despite the fact that reviewers have been spraying vitriol all over Tom Wolfe's latest effort, I Am Charlotte Simmons has been topping out most of the bestseller lists we've seen. Whether or not he got the contemporary university scene right, Wolfe is a big enough deal that readers seem to want to see for themselves just how far the author of The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man In Full and many, many others has drifted. All of which has us guessing that I Am Charlotte Simmons will be making a rather large bump in a lot of holiday stockings this year.
The Lives of Shadows: An Illustrated Novel
Barbara Hodgson keeps reinventing the wheel. An artist, designer and author, no one besides Nick Bantock -- with whom Hodgson has worked -- delivers such a delightful blend of visual and verbal storytelling. And, though Bantock is better known, it could be argued that Hodgson tells deeper tales. This time out we're in Damascus in the first half of the 20th century with Julian, a young British wanderer who becomes obsessed with a house that he would lose himself inside of, if only war didn't intervene. Hodgson's designs add richness and texture and additional layers to the story. From the author of The Sensualist, The Tattooed Map comes another lovely story and a superb gift. -- Sienna Powers
Dave Barker's world has gone crazy. His mother has died, a stranger has a heart attack in his office, a single good deed leads him down a bad alley, his girlfriend seems suddenly nuts about him and he meets a dog who talks, but who only Dave can hear. As gonzo as a story that includes a talking dog may sound, author Barrowcliffe (Girlfriend 44 and Infidelity for First-Time Fathers) neatly avoids the trite and sappy and instead produces a postmodern relationship story that sometimes reads like the straight guy's answer to ChickLit. But don't be afraid: Lucky Dog is lots of fun and might -- if you're not careful -- even make you think. -- Aaron Blanton
Snow in July
"The night my sister almost dies for the twelfth time, a foot of snow falls, which makes it harder, though not impossible, to save her." That catchy opening line from Heather Barbieri's Snow in July gives a pretty accurate sense of the unexpected turns to be found in this debut novel. Erin Mulcahy is an 18-year-old woman making the best of it in Butte, Montana, preparing to attend art school back east and in the meantime, working at a vintage/costume store called Funkified. "I got the position," she explains, "because I'm good with a needle, though not in the same way my sister is." Yes, that's right: Erin is the legendary "good girl" of her family, as opposed to her more attractive 21-year-old sibling, Meghan, an addictive personality -- drugs, men, risks -- with a couple of daughters she can't seem to keep safe, or even by her side. Figuratively storming back into Butte in the midst of an actual, freak summer snowstorm, Meghan blithely upsets the fragile balance of her sister's life, as well as that of their widowed mother, Finola. She does so without concern, and with scant suggestion that she's willing to change. Yes, Meghan does take a bakery job, and she seems to be getting clean, but it's hard to know for sure. And hard, psychologically, on Erin, who despite her sis' serial screw-ups, continues to look up to the reckless, restless Meghan. "After years of disappointments, I still want the big-sister stamp of approval," Erin confesses. "I've spent most of my life trying to impress her, to make her think of me as more than her dopey younger sibling. Even now, she hasn't completely fallen off the pedestal I set her on. I have to catch her and push her back up, because she's my sister, because if I don't, she's not the only one who fails: I do too." There are myriad stories out there about the conflicts between sisters, some extraordinarily fine; and Barbieri doesn't revolutionize the genre in any way. However, Snow is a particularly warm-hearted example of the breed, with Erin discovering in herself the strengths she always thought belonged to her sister, and Meghan demonstrating both unanticipated sagacity and an unflinching free spirit that makes up -- somewhat, anyway -- for her paucity of promise as a mother. Snow in July is reminiscent of Mona Simpson's novels, in the way that it sneaks up on you with its message of strength as the payoff for hardship. This novel is not without its faults; for instance, a late-chapter shooting scene comes pretty much out of the blue, and contrasts bewilderingly with the story's tone up until then. Nonetheless, Snow in July remains a thoughtful and thought-provoking study of family afflictions. -- J. Kingston Pierce
Survival: Species Imperative #1
Julie E. Czerneda is no newcomer to the science fiction world. Her Web Shifters series, her Trade Pact Universe trilogy and the award-winnng standalone novel In the Company of Others have all contributed to a loyal, growing and well-deserved readership. However if Survival is any indication, Czerneda's Species Imperative series are the books that will put this author's name on the permanent science fiction map. Already esteemed for her talent at creating believable and compelling worlds, races and characters, the former biologist outdoes herself in Survival, a book with a larger emotional scope than Czerneda's previous outings. -- Lincoln Cho